National Guard confirms longer tour in Iraqby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio,
Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota National Guard soldiers stationed in Iraq will spend up to 125 more days in the country than originally expected. The Guard members extended tour in Iraq is part of President Bush's decision to send more troops to the country. Several politicians, Guard officials and the family members of soldiers are expressing frustration with the President's order.
St. Paul, Minn. — Larry Shellito, the adjutant general for the Minnesota National Guard, says he's been told by the Pentagon that Guard members serving in Iraq could continue serving into July.
Twenty-six hundred Minnesota National Guard soldiers are currently stationed in Iraq with the 1st Brigade Combat Team. They had been scheduled to return home in a few months.
Shellito says many of the Guard members were counting the days until they returned home and are disappointed with the extension. But he says one of the commanders in Iraq told him they'll refocus their efforts now that the extension has been ordered by President Bush.
"It's like a hard-fought football game and then all of a sudden at the last minute you're forced into overtime," he said. "So he said, 'well we're taking a swig of water, we're putting the helmet back on and we're going to finish the game.' That's the tremendous attitude that these soldiers have."
The Guard's extended duty is also frustrating family members. Several family members and Guard members acknowledged to journalists, they first learned of the extension from them. One Guard member wrote on his blog from Iraq that he was unhappy that he heard about the news from the Internet instead of his commanders.
Both Gov. Pawlenty and U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, two Republicans, say they're disappointed by the extension. In a conference call, Sen. Coleman also said he's not pleased with how the information was released by the Pentagon.
"This has been poorly handled," Coleman said. "I want to make sure that we get all of the information. What we have gotten is all of things that you have gotten. Vague things in a press release. I want a firm date and I want some clarification that our families and our folks are not going to be getting this stuff by press release of by speeches. There's got to be a better process to tell folks what's expected of them."
Family members say they're disappointed but aren't surprised by the news. Claire Thompson says her husband, Wes, has been warning her that an extension was possible.
Wes Thompson is a medic who serves on a base north of Baghdad. Claire Thompson says rumors of an extension have been circulating for several months.
"I keep on saying that I'm excited that he's coming home and we're going to do this and that and the next thing... and he keeps on saying 'maybe not right away. It might not happen as soon as I thought it would,'" she said.
Thompson, of Arden Hills, says she's frustrated because her husband has been deployed since September 2005. That's when he and other Minnesota Guard members were sent to Camp Shelby, Miss., for training. They started their deployment in Iraq last March.
Claire Thompson called her husband's deployment "nerve racking." She says she feels like she's been holding her breath for a year and a half.
The extension has left her with even more uncertainty. She worries that Wes may be asked to do a different job, be transferred or have his deployment extended yet again, perhaps beyond July.
"It's a possibility," she said. "I'm really hoping. Oh, they can't do it again, can they? I don't think they can extend them more than once. I'm sure they can. They're the Army they can do whatever they want, but I don't think they will. I really hope they don't. That hasn't even crossed my mind."
Thompson says she and Wes were going to buy a house when he got back. They also got married last March and they were hoping to go on a late honeymoon.
Kimberly Messner says she'd like to see her son, Cody, come home soon as well. Cody is stationed about 100 miles south of Baghdad. Kim Messner says she'd like to know exactly when Cody is coming home so they can start planning their lives.
"How can you plan anything? It's hard to tell your daughter to hold off on her wedding. But I told her, 'Cody and Lincoln,' my other son, 'are going to walk you down the aisle.' And if Cody's not there... he's missed out on enough stuff already."
National Guard commanders say they're more worried about the emotional welfare of the family members of the soldiers than the soldiers themselves. The family who were counting down the days until the deployment ends now have to add a few more months to their calendars.
Meanwhile, more than 100 people demonstrated early Thursday morning in St. Paul against the war in Iraq.
Many of the demonstrators held signs denouncing President's Bush's plans to increase the number of troops in Iraq.
Among the group was Jim Johnson, who says he's been speaking out against the Bush administration's Iraq policy since prior to the invasion.
Johnson says there's a lot more opposition to the war now than there used to be and he's convinced demonstrations like this morning's can make a difference.
"I think every time we protest people realize it and I do think it has an effect," he said.
Following their street protest, the activists walked to Sen. Norm Coleman's nearby office to thank Coleman for opposing the new Bush Iraq plan.
They're urging the Republican senator to work toward the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Coleman was not at his office at the time.
- All Things Considered, 01/11/2007, 5:20 p.m.
Tom Scheck covers politics and government for MPR News.